A few weeks ago, a friend asked me about a photograph that’s been making the rounds online. It appears to show Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett burning an American flag. “Do you know anything about this deplorable act?” my friend asked via email. “Is it true? If so, why is it not in the Seattle press?”
I was familiar with the photo and assured my friend it was a hoax. I shared with him a story from a reputable news organization showing the original photograph of Bennett, with nothing in his hands, dancing in a locker room. It was distributed by the Seahawks’ Twitter account in January 2016 after Seattle had beaten the Arizona Cardinals in the final game of the 2015 NFL season.
The altered image of Bennett with the burning flag was created by some dishonest bozo hoping to fan the flaming amygdala of anyone who thinks professional football players should stand for the national anthem and should sit still and shut up the rest of the time. Bennett, a habitual anthem sitter who enjoys taking a stand, is an easy target.
Welcome to the real fake news.
Today’s media business has become so fragmented that even people who consider themselves sophisticated consumers of information have been duped into sharing on social media something that turned out to be false.
Face it. Twitter and Facebook and Google are the news media. As such, they owe it to consumers to be better curators of information they disseminate. They purport to have editorial standards and ethical guidelines and all that, but until someone really holds their feet to the fire, Facebook and Twitter and countless other social media wannabes will gladly allow anyone from anywhere to post make-believe stuff that might give pro athletes a black eye or — oh, I don’t know — influence a presidential election.
In late October, The New York Times reported that violence against Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, had been fueled, at least in part, “by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country.”
That’s right. People are dying because of fake news showing up on social media. Because some people will pretty much believe anything they read without questioning the source.
Back in January, I took part in a panel discussion with the actors and the director of a play called The Liar at Seattle Public Theater. It was one of those post-performance discussions aimed at delving deeper into the themes of the play, and I remember saying at the time — two days after the inauguration of one Donald J. Trump — that Trump’s astonishing mendacity would augur a new heyday for investigative journalism.
I think this renaissance is happening, but it’s happening in a media industry struggling for relevance because of a shocking absence of media literacy among consumers. For every legitimate news organization paying reporters and editors millions of dollars a year to tell the truth, there are dozens of new websites run by fly-by-night trolls whose only aim is to silence the opposition. And while we all like to think we can tell reputable news sources from junk dealers, the Russians wouldn’t have put money into placing fake news on Facebook if they thought no one was going to take the bait.
Alas, we are gullible and easily manipulated. In a perfect world, Facebook and Twitter would recognize this and find a way to give us only the truth. But in the world that we’re stuck with, it’s our job — nay, our duty — to discern and cherish the difference between fake news and the real thing.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.